The 2020 Cheltenham Festival has taken place.
Crowns have slipped, new champions crowned. Crowds enthralled, crowds returning home with memories anew.
For everyone one of them, it was a relief, a blessing, to make that annual, escape from the normal. Even more so in these times.
The Sword of Damocles had hovered over the very existence of Cheltenham 2020. Yet government advice – and the BHA and Jockey Club’s adherence to those guidelines, kept the show on the road.
Tuesday began with the traditional false start and a false dawn to that almost primeval roar from the stands.
When the action did get underway, Shishkin and Abacadabras conjured up a magical finish, which served a portent on the two yards to follow for much of this Festival.
It was a very good week for mares, with Put The Kettle On setting the tone on Day One, with a gutsy victory from Fakir D’Oudairies.
The Conditional delivered some local joy for trainer David Bridgwater, while Epatante scotched rumours on her wellbeing, with a peerless performance to run out a convincing and worthy winner of the Champion Hurdle.
Yet there may be two other mares to challenge for her new crown – and they fought out one of the great races of this meeting in a clash of the titans. It was Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle – already an Irish Champion Hurdle winner, who got the split and held off the late challenge of Benie Des Dieux.
Wednesday got underway with an imperious performance from another horse who might have ended up in the Champion Hurdle. But Envoi Allen instead chose to display his magnificence in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
Then came one of those wow moments.
The RSA Novices’ Chase was destined to be fought out by Minella Indo and Allaho – the training property of messrs. Elliott and Mullins. But from the clouds, Champ found wings – and as his rivals floundered, Barry Geraghty galvanized an extraordinary effort in the McManus silks, turning certain defeat into an improbable, impossible victory. Another for Nicky Henderson.
And he, McManus and Geraghty were back in the winners’ enclosure after the next race too!
Sadly for Henderson, there was no historic bid from Altior, to join the immortal Badsworth Boy as a triple Champion Chase winner. For McManus the magic spell was temporarily broken, as Defi Du Seuil failed to fire.
Instead, we had the haunting memory of a magnificent, ghost-like winner of the past. The popular grey Politologue, second a year earlier, emulated John Hales’s very first popular grey, One Man, winner of this race in 1998.
Normal service soon resumed, as McManus took the next two races, including the emergence of the next cross country superstar, in France’s Easysland, who had the temerity to deny Tiger Roll another slice of history. Instead, the Tiger, on unsuitably soft ground, settled for an honourable second, perhaps the perfect warm-up for an even bigger date with destiny.
Day Two ended with Willie Mullins finally notching his first winner of the week, as Ferny Hollow defeated stable mate Appreciate It, in the Champion Bumper, often a benefit race for the Master of Closutton.
Racing resumed on Thursday with another wow moment to get proceedings underway.
Two of racing’s superstar hurdlers of recent years, Faugheen and Samcro, were returning to the scene of past triumphs, in a very new capacity, as novice chasers.
Samcro’s star had somewhat fallen, while Faugheen’s unbeaten run of three victories, had seen him regain the public’s faith, with the love having never left. But at twelve years of age, did we really dare to believe?
It was another very classy hurdler, Melon, twice runner-up in the Champion, who served it up to the former pair.
In a sensational finish, the outcome was in the balance from the back of the last fence, all the way up that final, punishing hill to the line.
Faugheen rallied, Melon was headed – but then fought back against Samcro. Faugheen closed, but so too did Samcro. Then Melon stretched his head – and Samcro’s nodded on the line.
It was virtually impossible to separate the pair. It was a high-octane moment fuelled on emotion.
Melon had always been the bridesmaid, Samcro had his supporters hoping he could rekindle his class, Faugheen had the bulk of public affection, but had just come up short, but played his part.
It was Samcro, once described as Jesus Christ, who enjoyed one of the great Second Comings in Cheltenham Festival history. It was hard luck on Melon.
But Mullins would not wait long for another Festival bridesmaid to make the leap to champion.
The Ryanair Chase saw Min step up in trip and take on last year’s popular winner Frodon. Having seen him off and having cleared the last, Min’s reserves began to empty.
Would the Cheltenham hill once again cruelly deny a deserving winner on that run-in. There was a big target on Paul Townend’s back and Saint Calvados took aim, closing, closing on Min.
In an almost tortuous climax, Min appeared set to be overhauled, but just held on. Agony for Min’s supporters gave way to ecstasy. The agony was all with Saint Calvados’s supporters and connections.
But they too would not have long to wait for retribution, as Simply The Betts jumped for fun to land a fiercely competitive Plate.
The biggest shock of the week came in one of the biggest races too. The Stayers’ Hurdle was billed as the race in which Paisley Park sealed his own place in the pantheon of staying greats. A two-time winner.
But the truth was somewhat different.
That magnificent racemare Apple’s Jade, skipped clear for one last hurrah. As she scampered down the hill for the final time, there was for one fleeting moment that sense that she might just have wriggled free and might not come back to them.
But her resolve folded quickly, just as Paisley Park, short of room and pace, began to struggle.
Instead it was Lisnagar Oscar who emerged to give Welsh trainer Rebecca Curtis a glorious return to the Festival winners’ enclosure she had graced in years gone by.
At Fishers Cross had won her an Albert Bartlett but had never quite nailed the Stayers’ crown. Now she has righted that wrong.
By Thursday evening, Cheltenham racegoers were going home to the realities of a fast-changing situation around the world. Manila was about to go on shutdown, Ireland was taking stringent measures and in the UK, action to address COVID-19/Coronavirus was stepped up.
Racing often exists in its own bubble and at the Cheltenham Festival that is always accentuated. It is pure theatre like no other. The Festival had somehow dodged the ensuing chaos and seemed to be a different world.
Yet on the Thursday evening, a sense of reality had been restored with news that Irish racing would take place without the public and that the prestigious Dubai World Cup would also play to empty stands.
That mood intensified on Friday morning, with the news that all English football matches had been suspended until April 3rd. Yet Gold Cup Day was still going ahead.
The Triumph Hurdle quickly reminded us that there is no such thing as a racing certainty. For sure, Goshen looked a good thing as he careered down to the last flight with an unassailable lead, a supreme horse of his generation.
Yet the unpredictability of horses and racing dashed dreams in a second, as the horse’s front and back foot stuck together in mid-air, causing him to stumble and lose poor Jamie Moore. It was a cruel twist of fate that nobody could legislate for.
Willie Mullins and Paul Townend picked up the pieces – a portent for what Gold Cup afternoon had in store.
Further Mullins success followed with Saint Roi in the County Hurdle – and the treble soon followed, as Monkfish got the better of a titanic struggle up the Cheltenham Hill, in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.
But all of this drama was just the hors d’oeuvres to the week’s biggest race.
The Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup brought together twelve horses, just five of whom were trained in Britain.
In a remarkably uneventful race, it was the defending champion, Al Boum Photo, who jumped his way into contention, before the top of the hill – and free-wheeled down to the home straight looking every bit the Cheltenham specialist.
Lostintranslation ran out of his skin, but in the final analysis, it was Santini who threw down the final challenge, staying on stoutly up the Cheltenham hill and slowly catching Al Boum Photo with every stride and gasp.
But his effort could not overthrow the reigning king, as Al Boum Photo joined a small, very select group of back-to-back winners of the Gold Cup. And yes, you’ve guessed it, he was another winner for messrs, Mullins and Townend, the latter landing the Champion Jockey title for the meeting, for good measure.
His victory propelled Al Boum Photo into the realms of distinctly out of the ordinary. It is some feat to get a horse ready to compete at three consecutive Festivals, let alone to be a leading contender. And there was a symmetry here.
Two years ago, as Presenting Percy was winning the RSA Novices’ Chase, Al Boum Photo was falling when looking a major threat. This time around, the roles were reversed, with Presenting Percy taking a horrible fall two out, as Al Boum Photo galloped into legend. Thankfully, Percy was up on his feet and will be back.
For the record, Al Boum Photo was just one of two returning champions (along with Sire Du Berlais) to defend their crowns.
Further Irish success followed in the Foxhunters, as the family O’Sullivan, enjoyed one of those special Cheltenham Festival moments with It Came To Pass.
Then usual service resumed, as Gordon Elliott’s Chosen Mate landed the Grand Annual.
One concern from Cheltenham 2020 is the uneven distribution of talent at the highest level. Elliott, Henderson and Mullins dominated the week, winning 18 of the 28 races. That cannot be entirely healthy and takes much of the romance out of the meeting. But racing has always been cyclical and the wheel of fortune turns.
It certainly has for Paul Webber and it was fitting that his Indefatigable won the closing Martin Pipe Conditional, in many ways bookending a great week for mares.
As the crowds left on the Friday evening, there were many moments to reflect upon. Yet there was also the underlying sense of being a part of a history that might not continue for much longer.
With expectations that this virus is likely to escalate in the coming weeks, there is a real concern that Cheltenham was the last chance to celebrate a unique way of life for some time.
Just as Istabraq’s chance of a fourth Champion Hurdle was denied by foot and mouth disease in 2001, Tiger Roll’s bid for immortality in the Grand National, could be under real threat.
That will of course be decided by racing’s authorities in the hours, days and weeks to come.
Racing’s bubble once again took over our lives as a much-needed distraction this week.
But there is a much bigger picture and health and lives are more important.
However, for those of us that appreciate the compelling story, the unexpected, the joy, the triumph, the disappointment, then Cheltenham week in many ways encapsulates the ultimate journey.
For me, jumps racing is a little short on juggernaut racehorse superstars at present. But there were plenty of “I was there” moments this week – and perhaps the biggest one of all was saved for just being there in worrying times.
And for those who love racing, Cheltenham is the essence of our existence. It is the tiny minutiae, those moments of gold that so colour and embellish our lives and give us much to look forward to and be thankful for.
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